'Mojave': Tribeca Review

Featuring the sort of hyperliterate villain found only in bad movies, Mojave undoes its B-movie potential with pretentious overwriting.

A violent encounter in the desert leads to a twisted cat-and-mouse game in William Monahan's noirish thriller.

You can feel the effort behind every carefully crafted line of dialogue in the second directorial effort from William Monahan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Departed. Depicting the twisted cat-and-mouse game between a burned-out Hollywood star and the serial killer he encounters during a solo sojourn in the desert, Mojave, which recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, feels strained from first moment to last.  

Garrett Hedlund plays Tom, who in the film's opening moments derisively notes that he's been famous since he was 19. His success apparently hasn't done much to lift his mood, as his wife and child have decamped to London while he putters alone in his physically neglected, palatial home.

His solution for his ennui is to impulsively take a solo journey into the Mojave Desert (Don Davis' widescreen cinematography takes full advantage of the scenic locations), where he expresses his emotional state by loudly taunting the coyotes howling at night. But his life takes a sudden dramatic turn with the arrival of Jack (Oscar Isaac), a rifle-toting stranger who wanders into his camp one night and helps himself to a cup of coffee.

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The sort of highly articulate psycho who can only be dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter, the quietly menacing Jack soon begins discussing philosophical issues, dismissing the contrivances of Moby Dick and explaining, "I'm into motiveless malignity … I'm a Shakespeare man."

The encounter doesn't end at all well, and later, while Tom lies holed up in a cave, he shoots and kills a man who he assumes is Jack looking to do him harm. It turns out to be a uniformed officer, with Tom quickly covering up the evidence of his fatal mistake and retreating back to Los Angeles. Unfortunately for him, Jack finds evidence of his identity in his toppled Range Rover, and follows him to town to add him to his list of kills. "Game on, brother," he proclaims.

Shaving off his scruffy beard and outfitted with spiffy new duds thanks to the unfortunate gay man who tries to pick him up only to wind up dead for his trouble, Jack relentlessly pursues his quarry. Getting caught up in the sinister web is Tom's French actress mistress (Louise Bourgoin); his unflappable agent (Walton Goggins, as drolly amusing here as he is in FX's Justified); and his hedonistic partner/producer (Mark Wahlberg), who has a fondness for Chinese food and prostitutes.

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During their charged encounters, Jack reveals himself to be a highly literate villain, referring to his I.Q. as being in John Stuart Mill territory and constantly dropping literary allusions. Not that he's without his intellectual flaws, as evidenced when Tom corrects his mistaken quote from George Bernard Shaw.

"Now is not the time to one-up me on the quotes, brother," Jack replies.

Attempting to infuse his noirish thriller with satirical jabs at Hollywood excess — Wahlberg, clearly enjoying the opportunity, plays the coked-up producer as a buffoonish cartoon — the director-screenwriter wildly overplays his hand, with none of the proceedings ever feeling remotely credible. That wouldn't matter as much if the film displayed more outrageous style, but other than a few baroque moments, it remains stubbornly mundane.

Hedlund's recessive performance doesn't help matters, with the actor failing to make us care about his beleaguered character's fate. Isaac tries to take up the slack with his admittedly wildly entertaining turn, representing a marked departure from his subdued work in such films as Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year. But for all his outlandish efforts, he's unable to bring much coherence to the character, and the two men's eventual violent showdown — prefaced, of course, by a long-winded conversation about such topics as "the duality of man" — is sadly anti-climactic.

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In a simpler form, Mojave might have been a gripping if minor genre film. Instead, it's undone by the sort of pretentious overwriting that might have seemed impressive in the '70s but now comes across as merely forced.

Production: Atlas Independent, Henceforth Pictures, Relativity International, MICA Entertainment LLC

Cast: Garret Hedlund, Oscar Isaac, Louise Bourgoin, Walton Goggins, Mark Wahlberg

Director-screenwriter: William Monahan

Producers: William Green, William Monahan, Justine Suzanne Jones, Aaron L. Ginsburg

Executive producers: Andy Horwitz, Nick Quested, Jason Spire

Director of photography: Don Davis

Production designer: Robb Buono

Editor: John David Allen

Costume designer: Arielle Antoine

Composer: Andrew Hewitt

Casting: John Papsidera

Not rated, 92 minutes